I used to do kung fu with a private instructor more than 20 years ago, and starting classes again – in a group, this time – reminded me of a story he told me. He was hired by a middle-class couple called Rachel and Tim who, in their mid-forties, in an effort to get fit, decided to do kung fu in their home. They found their/my teacher, also known as a sifu, through an advert on the noticeboard of the council health club. He was called Roderick. Until he dedicated himself to martial arts, he had worked in a shoe shop in Leytonstone, east London.
Roderick’s world was one of sweaty gyms full of dead-eyed hard men working on how they might hurt people better, so it was pleasant for him, once a week, to visit Rachel’s and Tim’s Georgian townhouse in north London where, in the high-ceilinged front room, with the oriental rugs rolled back, he taught the couple kicks, punches and blocks. They seemed so pleasant and cultured, occasionally breaking off training to take a phone call about a visit to the opera or a smart new restaurant.
One week, Roderick brought along a pair of padded suits – one red, one blue – for the couple to practise in. He told them: “These suits will allow you to hit each other in safety. They cover your head and body almost completely. There are gloves for your hands to punch with and padded boots for your feet to kick with.”
Rachel and Tim strapped themselves into the suits. “Right,” Roderick said. “First, we’ll try . . .” – but before he could finish his sentence, the couple had flown at each other, all the suppressed anger of two decades of a productive and successful marriage erupting from them. Grabbing her husband’s shoulders, Rachel threw Tim to the ground and then dived on to his prone body, raining blows on his head.
Horrified, Roderick pulled her off, but as soon as he did so, Tim attacked his wife from behind using a potentially fatal chokehold, so they fell to the floor again, breaking a coffee table in the process.
From then on, one or the other of them would be on top, hitting, cursing, elbowing, chopping and spitting. It wasn’t just the extraordinary level of violence that upset Roderick but the things they screamed at each other – accusations, imputations and complaints, all in the most educated and baroque language. Only when they ran out of energy did the pair cease attacking each other.
Drained and exhausted, Rachel and Tim lay on the stripped-pine floor, gasping for air. They begged Roderick to bring back the suits the next week but he refused. A month or so later, he stopped seeing the couple and gratefully returned to his world of mixed martial arts and bare-knuckle Thai kick-boxing, unnerved and unsettled by his glimpse of the rage that lay below the surface of a middle-class marriage.
Some of you may have guessed that Rachel and Tim do not exist. The couple were my wife, Linda, and I. We have now been married for 44 years. I am breaking cover to plead: if anybody can tell us where you can buy those padded suits, we’d be grateful.